CareerExplorer’s step-by-step guide on how to become a judge.
Is becoming a judge right for me?
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However, law schools are largely unconcerned with an applicants’ major; they look for candidates who have achieved outstanding grades and participated in extracurricular and philanthropic activities.
Law School Admission Test (LSAT)
After obtaining a Bachelor’s, graduates must take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). The LSAT measures reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, and logical reasoning.
Law School / Juris Doctor Degree
Great marks on the LSAT will increase your chances of being admitted to a competitive Juris Doctor Degree — or a Law Degree program.
Be sure to apply to schools approved by the American Bar Association (ABA).
Common courses include civil procedure, evidence, legal philosophy, advanced legal research, and jurisprudence. Elective classes may be in specialized subject areas such as family law and tax law. Internships with law firms are also part of the typical law school curriculum. It is recommended that law students get involved in at least one extracurricular activity while in law school. Some examples are moot court, a trial advocacy team, and alternative dispute resolution competitions. Aspiring judges are also encouraged to write articles and get involved with scholarly journals. These activities help to develop research and writing skills, which are imperative in a judgeship.
Bar Exam / Admission to the Bar
While testing and admission requirements can vary somewhat from one jurisdiction to another, most U.S. states and territories require candidates to take the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) administered by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE). The MBE is a six-hour, 200-question exam that evaluates examinees’ understanding of constitutional law, criminal law, evidence, and contracts. The NCBE website has a study aids store which sells past examinations.
In most jurisdictions, candidates for the legal bar must also pass an ethics examination. In some, a state- or territory- specific exam is also required.
Before entering the practice of law, some prospective judges compete for a position as a judicial law clerk. In the U.S., these clerkships are available at both the state and federal levels. Federal clerkships are extremely highly regarded. While not a mandatory step to becoming a judge, working as a judicial law clerk presents opportunities to work closely with a judge, learn about the role firsthand, and network in judicial circles.
Virtually every judge on the bench today has practised law for at least a few years before being elected or appointed to a position in the judiciary. Some have experience as private sector attorneys and others as prosecutors or public defenders.
States have different rules governing the selection of judges. Some jurisdictions hold general elections; in others, the governor and/or legislature appoints judges. Experienced lawyers who wish to become judges apply for judgeships by submitting their name for consideration to a judicial nominating commission. They may also be recommended by politicians. Ultimately, there are five main ways of becoming a judge at the state or territorial level:
Judges are elected by the public. Party affiliation is displayed on the ballot.
Judges are elected by the public. Party affiliation is not displayed on the ballot.
Judges are chosen by the state legislature.
Judges are appointed by the governor. Approval from the legislative body may be needed.
Assisted Appointment / Merit Selection
After assessing the qualifications of judicial candidates, a nominating commission gives the governor a list of names. The governor then appoints a judge. After serving a term, the public votes on whether or not the judge will continue serving.
The assisted appointment method is the most commonly used, but the process varies from state to state. After being elected or appointed, judges may be required to complete state-administered training or participate in programs offered by legal organizations such as the American Bar Association (ABA), the National Judicial College (NJC), or the National Center for State Courts. State judges usually serve for set terms.
The Federal government uses the appointment system, whereby the sitting President selects judges, subject to approval by the Senate. The Federal Judicial Center (FJC) provides training for Federal judges. Typically, federal judgeships are lifetime appointments.